My father mentioned the other day that he doesn’t like it when people tell him how to feel, and especially that he ought to feel gushingly grateful and happy. That seems reasonable, but it got me wondering. Those of us given to a subtler tone of sensibility often downplay the places in scripture that command heart sorts of responses. Love must really be a kind of action, and since feeling isn’t an action, love in the Bible must mean something different than we usually mean when we speak of love (I believe that it means more, but not altogether other). When Christ tells people to rejoice and be glad in tribulation, perhaps he means something other than what it looks like. How can things so seemingly out of our control as faith, hope, love, joy, gratitude, and so on be commandments?

It doesn’t help that those of us least given to emotionalism have most often been puzzled, distracted, and hurt by the American revivalist style of religious meeting, where we are to show our dedication to God by singing, dancing, clapping, jumping, crying, effusing, enthusing — loudly and energetically. This experience obscures more than it illumines for us introvert sorts because, from me, that kind of behavior does not necessarily signify happiness, let alone joy. It more likely signifies a kind of delirium. In me, singing silly songs loudly or playing messy games or running around playing games and so on is most likely a somewhat personally detached response to a perceived duty. When I’m really feeling especially joyful I talk quietly and quickly; I stand silently; I go for a walk by myself; I look out at the sky; I go in my room and pray — it would be really hard to tell that I was feeling better and useful just by watching me. When I’m really feeling especially grateful I usually do so silently, as an especially happy prayer.

This introvert/extrovert misunderstanding confuses the question of what it means to command things like joy and gratitude, because in some contexts the implication is that if I were really joyful — if I were really keeping the command to rejoice — then I would do so in a loud, energetic, bouncy kind of way. I notice that I’ve never in my life expressed joy in quite that way, and suppose that the command must be impossible, incomprehensible, or have a different meaning. The same is, I suspect, true of injunctions to weep and mourn, which are connected to repentance (I haven’t had much experience with that one).

Upon closer inspection, however, commands toward things like joy and gratitude begin to make more sense. Besides the misunderstanding concerning what these things look like, there is another concerning time and particularity. If I hear: “be joyful!” it’s easy enough to interpret that as: “be in a happy mood.” When I’m not in a happy mood, then, and can hardly bear peppy songs and bouncy gushing, I might suppose that keeping that command is not possible. I might easily suppose that I must get myself into a mood of pep and gush. It is important in that circumstance to insist upon the distinction between peppy gush and how I have actually experienced joy, and how seldom they overlap. Then I have to remember that I am currently here, now, in this particular mood, and with God currently present, if undetectable. I have no present responsibility to be joyful in general, under any imaginable circumstance, but only in this moment, under this mood and circumstance. Upon pausing for a moment to look about at this particular moment, I often find that I’m moping because I want to, and that there is indeed joy to be had (not of the peppy gushing kind, but more often of the quietly glad kind), only I’ll have to give up moping and whining in order to accept it. Which is less appealing than one would expect — because to stop whining about work, how it’s near sunset and I still have to walk another mile and wait for a bus, blah, blah, blah, and exclaim to God that the light is fantastic; the smell of rain on the bushes is lovely; this moment is altogether delightful — requires the humility to admit that my failure to do well at my job and get my own way is not especially important, even to me — and humility is difficult. To come back after a long day of irritating mediocrity and try complaining or worrying or analyzing before God, only to find that even I can’t take myself so very seriously, and that the only sincere feeling to be had is gratitude that I get to come back and pray — is difficult, as admitting how unimportant one’s own preferences and irritations are, even to oneself, often is. And not especially peppy. Must I be joyful and grateful? Can’t I be just a bit… annoyed or something? (I’m not even going to try for angry; nobody believes me when I try to be angry) Well, yeah, I could — but perhaps not while praying at the same time.

It is true that not every kind of feeling is available to us at any given moment — some ways of expressing feelings are not available to us at any point in time — but that doesn’t necessarily make nonsense of injunctions toward things like joy, love, and gratitude, even in feeling — though those feelings are not the main point. Knowing and becoming like God is the point. But one is unlikely to pray well when one is busy insisting upon being discontented, because discontentment before a God who is perfectly good, loves us, became man for us, died and rose for us, and is incredibly kind, loving, patient, and merciful with us even up to this present moment — is ultimately untruthful, and can only be maintained by insisting upon the importance of getting one’s own way, even in trivial matters.

EDIT: I can’t claim to know precisely what joy is like under non-trivial suffering, but you might want to take a look at this akathist.


One thought on “Feeling

  1. A friend of mine had a saying, “Sin comes out in people in different ways.” I’m thinking the same can be said about joy. For some in exuberance, for others in contemplation. And in other ways across the spectrum, I guess.

    Hey, I like the delightful turns of phrase that show up in your writing, like your “It more likely signifies a kind of delirium.”

    Good job.

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